The Forgotten Lenten Rose
It was a funny little plant, growing wild among the weeds of a neglected terrace planter when we moved into the house that April.
The house itself was old and not a little careworn, a rambling Weymouth relic from another century, with odd little rooms and narrow doorways veering off from a large Old World kitchen — servant quarters, it turned out — recalling a time when maids and cooks traveled with their households. From the outside it made me think of the simple French manor house in the Madeleine stories.
“In an old house in Paris all covered with vines,
Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines...”
Because we’d just sold our beloved post-and-beam home in Maine — and taken a serious beating owing to a collapsing real estate market — I had neither the energy nor inclination to hunt for a new house to own. Besides, we had three kids heading off to college in an economy tottering over an abyss. And though we lost a small fortune by selling at the wrong moment, we counted ourselves fortunate amid reports of 2 million American homes suddenly underwater or being foreclosed upon. We actually had friends who were still in shock from watching most of their life savings vaporize in a matter of days.
The cottage I’d been renting here oozed charm but had only four rooms. Meanwhile, we had a large moving truck packed with an entire household of belongings making a beeline for Southern Pines.
My ever-pragmatic wife, Wendy, had the solution, knew of a single lady with two dogs who’d literally fled the beautiful old house just up the street — something about a legal fight with a sister over their dowager mother’s estate in Virginia. Anyway, the management company that looked after the place for the Pennsylvania owners was reportedly eager to find new tenants as soon as possible.
“So let’s rent this beautiful old house for a while and let life settle down,” she proposed, pointing out that it was perfect for our momentary needs with a backyard that was vast and fenced — perfect for the dogs — and a small terrace with a garden that would satisfy my biological need to potter around in the dirt.
“Right. OK. But we’re only staying a year,” I declared, still in the throes of grief for my lost Maine garden.
We moved in a day or two later.
As April unfolded, I spent my early days setting up my writing room in an extra upstairs bedroom, the one directly over the garden. Then the dogs and I went out and got to work on the terrace, digging out all sorts of dead plants and snarly weeds. When I came to the sad little plant with the curious evergreen leaves growing at the base of one of the two Savannah hollies trained to grow over the terrace, I nearly yanked it out too but decided to leave it for the time being. I cleared it some growing space and even gave it a shot of liquid fertilizer, just to see what might result.
I also planted daylilies picked up from the Southern Pines farmers market and transplanted several hosta plants I’d brought from my front garden up north. The soil wasn’t great and only a few things bloomed that first summer, though not the mystery plant. It thickened and grew more robustly but never put forth anything resembling a bloom.
That first summer, though, I found the shady terrace an ideal place to sit in my favorite weathered wooden Adirondack chair and read, or nap, or daydream about my lost Maine garden. Every week a lawn crew showed up to mow the grass and tidy up the camellia shrubs out front, part of the bargain of renting. Gosh, how I missed cutting my own grass!
Every time I went to Lowe’s for soil or kitchen paint or lumber for the big bookshelf I was building, I found myself loitering by the new John Deere lawn tractors thinking of my own Deere tractor I couldn’t get onto the moving truck — and thus foolishly let go with the house in Maine. For better or worse, I suffer from stage four Tractorlust.
‘Day of Homecoming’
On the upside, the old house eventually began to grow on me. I loved the cool Indian summer evenings on the terrace, and when the cold weather finally descended, the sound of the ancient steam radiators clanking and softly hissing provided an oddly comforting soundtrack to our new life in an old house. Even when the ancient furnace below decks conked out and a crew needed more than a week to disassemble it and replace it, I didn’t mind so much because the fireplace was in excellent order and provided a good warming fire for several December nights running.
I got accustomed to the quirky old-fashioned plumbing and the crazy terrace door that only I could figure out how to completely shut and lock in the evenings. In truth, it often stayed open, as did the old-fashioned windows with their hinged screens, allowing the cool smell of the garden to fill the downstairs after warm spring and summer days, especially after thunderstorms.
It’s funny how a place can get under your skin. I’ve long believed that houses are more than bricks and mortar. They can — and do — absorb the psychic energy of the souls who inhabit them. I look at the scarred wooden floors of our rambling old Madeleine house — which will undoubtedly someday be refinished or perhaps replaced altogether by some groovy young modern — and can’t help but think about the countless families and friends and welcome strangers who’ve tread these floors.
They sag with the weight of life well lived. Sometimes during our noisy suppers in the cool, white-washed dining room with its deep set windows, I sit back and hear a grand noise of voices, a symphony of tongues — arguing and laughing, telling stories, sharing news, saying grace, reconnecting with loved ones — that have made this old place a home for generations. We don’t own this house and probably never will. But it will always own a piece of us.
“What I want and all I pine my days for is to go back to my house and see my day of homecoming,” Odysseus laments in Homer’s Odyssey. But homemaking is a craft of the heart. “Out in the world, we long to return home,” says former monk and spiritual psychologist Thomas Moore. “Sitting at home, we dream of wandering the world.”
For what it’s worth, I’ve managed to mentally roam the world and write two books in that tranquil upstairs room over the garden. Our back terrace, meanwhile, has become my favorite place for digging in the dirt and delving in the soul.
Moreover, last spring, the plant finally bloomed, and the mystery was solved.
It turned out to be a hellebore, which I suspected all along. Sometimes it is called the Lenten Rose because of its late winter blooming characteristics, putting forth some of the the loveliest and long-lasting blooms I’ve ever seen. Hellebores — which are not actually roses but belong to the buttercup family — have been popular cottage garden plants since the Middle Ages. Monks used their sometimes poisonous blooms to make purging tonics and others in rituals of witchcraft, yet the pink and pristine white beauty of the five-petaled blooms (which are technically sepals that never fall off, unlike those of roses) of the equally misnamed “Christmas Rose” were a powerful symbol of the Christ child, celebrated in carols of the early church.
My fine little mystery plant, for what it’s worth, now starts its bloom in late February and goes all the way into early summer.
This year, the terrace plantings I’ve made — a gardenia bush and various knock-out roses, lilies, hostas and bleeding heart, lacecap hydrangea and a Japanese quince, not to mention the twining clematis vine and a host of yet-to-be plants I picked up at the annual autumn member plant sale at Raleigh’s Raulsten Arboretum — appear to have wintered over just fine but for two cases.
Why should I lavish such time and money on putting down roots into a garden someone else owns? Hard to say, exactly — except perhaps my belief (probably owing to my native American great-grandmother) that none of us really owns the soil beneath our feet, we merely temporarily occupy it and are caretakers at best.
Besides, if and when the day comes we finally do move on to buy or build another house, I’ll be comforted to know I left this old house and the terrace garden out back much better than I found it one April day.
My gardener’s gift to the continuing life of this house will be the healthy plantings I leave behind, though a few special things will probably go with me.
A once forgotten Lenten Rose, for sure.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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